The Importance of Maintaining Healthy Shoulder Range of Motion

Maintaining a healthy shoulder range of motion is crucial for overall well-being and functionality. The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body, allowing for a wide range of activities from reaching and lifting to throwing and swinging. However, various factors can impact shoulder mobility, leading to discomfort and limitations that affect daily life.

The Crucial Role of Shoulder Mobility in Everyday Life

Shoulder mobility is essential for performing everyday tasks, such as reaching overhead, putting on clothing, and personal hygiene activities like washing your hair. We often underestimate the mobility required for these “Activities of Daily Living” (ADLs) until we either temporarily or permanently lose our range of motion. And these are just the basics!

Even for those who work at a desk most of the day, healthy shoulder range of motion is important. Reaching for items, typing, and other desk tasks all rely on shoulder mobility. For others, good shoulder mobility is crucial to performing regular work tasks effectively and comfortably.

Quality of life also includes the ability to participate in favorite sports, hobbies, and recreational activities. Whether you’re an avid swimmer or tennis player, or you love gardening, painting, or playing musical instruments, impaired shoulder mobility can seriously impact your ability to do what you love. Even running relies on a certain amount of shoulder mobility!

Moreover, if you have small children or grandchildren, you need the ability to reach in odd directions, raise your arms and lift things overhead, push down from unusual angles, and more. Shoulder mobility impacts every area of your life, yet many people allow it to slowly deteriorate over time, accepting the narrative that they can no longer do certain activities. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? Can we maintain a healthy range of motion and the ability to engage in our favorite activities longer in life? We definitely think so!

Common Factors Leading to Reduced Shoulder Mobility

Losing shoulder mobility can happen immediately or gradually over time. Let’s take a look at the most common factors that we see leading to long-term reduced shoulder mobility: posture, accidents/injuries/surgeries, and aging habits.

The Impact of Posture on Shoulder Mobility

Have you ever considered how much your shoulder range of motion depends on the muscles and joints in your upper back? Poor posture not only impacts shoulder mobility but also typically causes fixation in the joints at the spine and ribs, along with tense muscles trying to hold everything in place. Specifically, a rounded upper back, known as hyperkyphosis, and forward head posture are common postural issues that significantly affect shoulder mobility. These postural distortions alter the alignment of the spine and shoulders, leading to several negative effects which, of course, include reduced shoulder mobility.

You might be thinking, “I’ve had poor posture for years and haven’t noticed any issues with my shoulder range of motion.” Consider the possibility that you adapted long ago to having limited mobility, so it feels normal now. If this might be true, we recommend an objective range-of-motion assessment for functional movements involving the shoulders. Alternatively, you may have extra flexibility in certain joints that allows you to compensate. Either way, it’s important to know that, like the rest of your body, shoulder movements will adapt until they can’t. Unlike other parts of your body, shoulders have the most range of motion, which tends to mean they have the least amount of stability. In our experience, once the shoulder is past its ability to adapt and there is a joint or muscle issue, you will need better posture for the shoulder to heal and for your normal range of motion to return. 

Adapting to Limitations Following Accidents, Injuries & Surgeries

After accidents, injuries, and surgeries, it’s common for people to adapt to limitations rather than fully recovering their shoulder mobility. This adaptation can lead to chronic issues and further limitations over time. When shoulder mobility is restricted, people often develop compensatory movements to perform tasks. These compensatory movements, while helping to get through daily activities, place additional strain on other parts of the body, leading to pain and potential injuries in areas such as the neck, back, and even the opposite shoulder.

Moreover, reduced use of the shoulder can lead to muscle atrophy, where the muscles weaken and shrink, further limiting mobility and strength. Muscle atrophy not only decreases the functional capacity of the shoulder but also reduces overall arm strength, making it more challenging to perform everyday tasks like lifting, reaching, and carrying objects. Over time, this can lead to a cycle of increasing weakness and decreasing mobility.

Chronic pain is another significant consequence of failing to fully rehabilitate the shoulder. Persistent pain and inflammation can severely affect one’s quality of life, making it difficult to sleep, work, or engage in recreational activities. Chronic pain can also contribute to emotional distress, including anxiety and depression, due to the ongoing discomfort and reduced ability to participate in enjoyable activities.

So Incomplete Recovery is Bad, But…
Recovery following an accident, injury, or surgery is often painful, time-consuming, and longer than expected. While initial recovery with physical therapy (PT) is typically measured in weeks or months, our experience shows that a more complete recovery generally takes 8 months to a year. To us, a more complete recovery means regaining maximum mobility while stabilizing movements by properly reintegrating them into full-body movements.

Many people find that insurance-covered physical therapy results in being discharged around 70-80% of recovery. To achieve full recovery, we recommend continuing with cash-pay physical therapy or engaging in corrective exercises. Don’t worry! These sessions can typically be more spread out than your initial recovery sessions.

It’s important to note that while the best results are achieved during the initial healing phase, when fascia, muscle, and ligament fibers are reforming, improving mobility and stability is almost always possible, even years after an incomplete recovery. Our combination of massage, chiropractic care, corrective exercises, and microcurrent therapy addresses all aspects of recovery and helps achieve excellent results.

Use It or Lose It: Aging and Shoulder Mobility

As we age, maintaining shoulder mobility becomes even more important. The principle of “use it or lose it” applies, as inactivity can lead to a decline in flexibility and strength. For example, we might lower items we regularly reach for, gradually reducing the frequency of overhead movements until we rarely reach overhead anymore. This can contribute to:

  • Decreased Flexibility: With age, the tendons and ligaments in the shoulder can become less elastic, reducing range of motion.
  • Strength Loss: Muscle strength decreases with age, and without regular exercise, the shoulder muscles can weaken, making it harder to perform everyday activities.
  • Increased Risk of Injury: Reduced mobility and strength can increase the risk of falls and other injuries, making it essential to maintain an active lifestyle.

Staying active and incorporating shoulder exercises into your routine can help maintain and even improve shoulder mobility as you age, preventing these declines and keeping you more independent and injury-free.

If you’re reading this, and you’re already experiencing reduced shoulder mobility, you can still apply “use it or lose it” to keep the mobility you have!

A Couple More Reasons To Maintain Shoulder Mobility

The Connection Between Shoulder Mobility and Low Back Health

Shoulder mobility is not only crucial for the upper body but also significantly impacts the lower back. The latissimus dorsi (aka your “lats”), are large muscles connecting the shoulders to the lower back,  which play a vital role in maintaining posture and movement. These muscles help support proper posture, and restricted shoulder mobility due to tight lats can lead to compensatory movements that strain the lower back. 

Additionally, the latissimus dorsi aids in coordinating movements between the upper and lower body, and limited shoulder mobility can disrupt this coordination, leading to back pain and discomfort. Maintaining good shoulder mobility is essential for injury prevention, as it helps the body move more efficiently and evenly distribute loads during activities, reducing the risk of overuse injuries in the lower back.

Prevention of Frozen Shoulder

Maintaining shoulder mobility is crucial in preventing conditions like frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis). This condition causes stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint, severely limiting movement, and can develop when the shoulder is immobilized for long periods, such as after surgery or injury. Recovery from frozen shoulder can take anywhere from several months to up to three years! Regular movement and stretching of the shoulder can help prevent frozen shoulder, keeping the joint flexible and reducing the risk of severe limitations.

Tips for Maintaining Shoulder Mobility

To maintain healthy shoulder range of motion, consider the following tips:
Pay attention to your posture throughout the day, ensuring your back is straight and your head aligned with your spine. 

  • Incorporate exercises that promote shoulder flexibility and strength, such as shoulder rotations, stretches, and resistance training. 
  • Stay active with activities like swimming, yoga, or resistance training that engage your shoulder joints. 
  • Regularly stretch your shoulders using exercises like arm circles and wall stretches to maintain flexibility. 
  • Ensure your workspace is ergonomically friendly, with your computer screen at eye level and your chair providing proper support.

A Special Note: When choosing a guided yoga practice, it’s important to be cautious. While yoga is excellent for increasing range of motion that may not be used daily, some strength or workout-focused practices can overemphasize push movements (such as arms in front of the torso, especially facing the floor) without adequate strengthening in the opposite direction. Pilates practices, on the other hand, often provide more balanced strength and mobility exercises for the shoulders in all directions, making them a beneficial complement to yoga or standalone practice for shoulder health.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining a healthy shoulder range of motion is essential for overall health and well-being. By paying attention to posture, fully recovering from injuries, staying active, and incorporating regular stretching and strengthening exercises, you can ensure your shoulders remain functional and pain-free throughout your life. If you have any concerns about your shoulder mobility or experience persistent pain, we’re here and happy to help.